Bulbasaur and the Hidden Village – Charmander: The Stray Pokémon – Here Comes the Squirtle Squad
Okay, last entry was so long this is starting to get ridiculous, so I’ll try to blaze through the synopsis of these three episodes as quickly as I can so I can spend more time on commentary; here goes nothing!
These are the episodes in which Ash meets and catches, in rapid succession, his Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle, each under unusual circumstances. Bulbasaur is the guardian of the ‘hidden village,’ a kind of halfway house deep in the forest for Pokémon abandoned by their trainers, run by a girl named Melanie, who patches them up and releases them back into the wild. Bulbasaur is initially hostile towards Ash for intruding into the village and trying to capture one of the Pokémon, an Oddish, but warms to him when he, Brock and Misty help protect the village from Team Rocket. Melanie suggests that Bulbasaur leave with Ash so he can grow stronger, and so the Pokémon of the village can get used to surviving on their own again, and Bulbasaur agrees on the condition of a battle with Ash – which, of course, Ash wins. Soon after, Ash and his friends encounter Charmander waiting alone on a rock in the forest. Ash tries to capture Charmander, but Pikachu establishes that he actually has a trainer already, so they decide to leave him and travel on to the next Pokémon Centre. That night, they overhear a trainer named Damian bragging about his huge collection of Pokémon and explaining how he finally managed to ditch his useless Charmander in the wilderness by telling it he’d be back soon. Brock is furious and Damian’s group nearly comes to blows with the heroes, but Nurse Joy #147 breaks up the fight. Since a storm is brewing, Ash, Brock and Misty go back and look for Charmander, and manage to bring him back to the centre before his tail flame sputters out. Early in the morning, Charmander escapes and wanders off to look for Damian again, but he stumbles across Ash’s group on the road and saves them from Team Rocket. Damian shows up and wants Charmander back, but Ash convinces Charmander that Damian is a good-for-nothing jerk and the little salamander Pokémon joins Ash’s team instead. Ash’s Squirtle, finally, leads a gang of juvenile delinquent Squirtle who terrorise a small town with pranks, vandalism, theft, and their awesome sunglasses. The Squirtle Squad resent humans because all of them were abandoned by their trainers, and Meowth exploits this by tricking them into thinking that he owns and controls Jessie and James (which… let’s face it, is not far from the truth). Meowth manipulates the Squirtle into capturing Ash, Pikachu, Misty and Brock, but they let Ash return to town to buy medicine since Pikachu is injured. When Ash returns as promised, he finds that they have released his friends, since they aren’t a genuinely malicious bunch. He then helps the Squirtle Squad when Team Rocket inevitably turn on them, and coordinates them to put out a forest fire started by Team Rocket’s weapons. The Squirtle are reintegrated into society as part of the local fire brigade, and the leader joins Ash to travel Kanto with him.
Let’s talk about Pokémon and their trainers. As I said, Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle all join Ash’s team under unusual circumstances, and furthermore all of them had been abandoned by other trainers in the past (well, Charmander and Squirtle had; Bulbasaur could have been wild but I think it’s more likely that he was abandoned – how else would he have come to be working with Melanie? – and it would explain his somewhat aloof and suspicious nature), so all three of them presumably have somewhat skewed perspectives on humanity compared to wild Pokémon. Given this, it’s interesting that only Charmander acts in the way you’d expect an ‘outsider’ to act in the games – growing rapidly and later becoming disobedient. Part of the reason is probably that Squirtle and Bulbasaur had largely forgotten their trainers and washed their hands of humanity in general (except for Melanie, in Bulbasaur’s case) until Ash came along and forced them to totally rethink their attitudes towards people, while Charmander was still ‘loyal’ to Damian until making a snap decision to Flamethrower him in the head two minutes from the end of his episode. He may have regretted that choice later, and may even have come to feel he’d been forced into it – Bulbasaur and Squirtle both had other reasonable choices, but Charmander’s options, besides Ash, were going back to Damian or wandering off into an environment he wasn’t very well suited to (as he had learned the hard way only the night before). Finally, while Bulbasaur and Squirtle were both befriended by Ash specifically, it was actually Brock who did most of the work of rescuing Charmander, and Brock who decided to brave the storm to look for him in the first place. In fact, Ash acknowledges that Brock has as much right as him, if not more, to become Charmander’s trainer, but Brock insists Ash catch Charmander because… y’know, I’m honestly not sure. In short, Charmander may actually have legitimate reasons to be upset here.
Probably the single thing I find most interesting about these episodes is Bulbasaur’s insistence on a battle with Ash, which seems like a formality by that point – Ash and Bulbasaur have worked together, Bulbasaur clearly has at least some degree of respect for him, and Melanie has suggested that everyone involved would benefit if Bulbasaur joined the team, and given her blessing. Honestly, I think it seems like a formality because that’s precisely what it is: trainers catch Pokémon, and Bulbasaur is not going to go easy on Ash just because he seems like kind of a decent guy; he is damn well going to be captured, because that’s what trainers are for. Squirtle and Charmander don’t challenge Ash; they just join up because they feel he’s already earned their respect, and I think the fact that Bulbasaur does is at least partly because, as we’ll see in Island of the Giant Pokémon, he’s very stubborn and also a bit of a cynic (Squirtle the reformed gang leader, by contrast, isn’t so likely to be a stickler for tradition). What does being captured actually mean for a Pokémon, anyway? Theoretically they belong to the trainers who capture them, but we know they can break out of their Pokéballs whenever they really want to (case in point, Misty’s Psyduck, but others do it too, and not just for comic relief either), so there’s nothing stopping them from wandering off in the night and never coming back, but in practice they don’t. The very act of capturing a Pokémon normally seems to instil a degree of loyalty, which tends to remain even when it’s not such a good idea, as with Damian and Charmander. This is presumably why releasing a Pokémon is viewed as such a jerkass thing to do in the anime. Speaking of capture, when Ash first tries and fails to catch Charmander, Brock observes that he’s quite weak and tired – in theory, an easy catch. Now, what happens in the anime when you try to catch another trainer’s Pokémon is neither entirely clear nor totally consistent across different seasons, but here and now I think the only reasonable interpretation is that Charmander’s loyalty to Damian is what makes it so easy for him to break out of Ash’s Pokéball. Even for a weak or injured Pokémon, being captured still involves an element of choice: no Pokémon can be captured unless it is at least receptive to being partnered with a human (with the caveat that most wild Pokémon will still want to test a trainer’s worth by battling first). This gives an interesting perspective to Nurse Joy’s seemingly nonsensical comment, when she breaks up the fight with Damian, that it’s disrespectful to Pokémon to use them for settling personal disputes. How is it any more disrespectful than using Pokémon to battle at all? I suspect it’s meant to be implicit that practice battles and official challenges, as part of the advancement of a Pokémon’s career with a trainer, are in some sense “what they signed up for,” while “hey, Pikachu, beat up this guy’s Pokémon for me because he’s a douchebag” is unfairly bringing Pokémon into a wholly human dispute (although this particular example is something of a grey area; Damian’s mistreatment of his Pokémon could be considered just as much Pikachu’s business as Ash’s).
To finish up for today, I want to take a closer look at Squirtle’s street gang. For the Squirtle Squad, being abandoned by their trainers resulted in disillusionment with humanity in general, so clearly they had expectations of partnership with trainers which weren’t met – presumably power, knowledge and friendship. Again, abandonment is regarded as an unambiguously rotten thing to do, by both human characters and Pokémon; in a sense it’s a breach of the implied agreement a trainer makes with any Pokémon who joins his team. I suspect the Squirtle Squad are a Pokémon-world instance of the depressing phenomenon reported by real-world animal shelters, who invariably receive kittens and puppies in huge numbers after each Christmas – presents given to children who weren’t ready for the responsibility. Squirtle, of course, are one of Kanto’s standard starter Pokémon. It seems likely that the Squirtle Squad all belonged to new trainers who quickly realised that they weren’t cut out for the trainer’s life and ditched their starters in the wilderness. Ash and Officer Jenny #604 are quick to blame the trainers, but honestly I think the Pokémon League is just as much at fault here; obtaining a Pokémon License seems to be literally just a matter of turning ten and showing up.
What I’m driving at with this entry is that – easy as it is to dismiss Pokémon training as slavery and thereby demonise the franchise – the ethics of Pokémon training are, even from an in-universe perspective, a great deal more complicated than that, which is why I’m so glad the games finally caught up in Black and White and produced a whole storyline about whether ownership of Pokémon is morally justified. I still wish the story was a little more complex and the antagonists not so… well, cartoonish, but hey, it’s a kid’s series. Baby steps.